The Zombie Banh Mi at Cafe TH Can't Be Killed
Photos by Katharine Shilcutt
Now in its second year, the annual Zombie Banh Mi eating contest at Cafe TH drew seven competitors on Saturday, all attempting to finish the sandwich that no one could last year. The banh mi -- so named for its capsaicin-riddled Zombie hot sauce and its association with the Houston Zombie Walk, which puts on zombie-related events for charity -- is available on Cafe TH's regular menu, but at its regular foot-long size. For the annual Zombie Banh Mi challenge, the sandwich is stretched to a massive four feet long and topped with everything Cafe TH has in its kitchen.
The panel of competitors sweated and grimaced their way through the banh mi and their allotted 30 minutes as fans cheered them on. Two former NWA wrestlers, a famous tag-team duo NWA called Chaz Taylor and Hambone, were the largest of the group but -- sadly -- fell the fastest despite chugging quarts of milk to cool the burn of the Zombie sauce. Taylor seemed to give up only 10 minutes in, while Hambone had to tag out completely with only 10 minutes to go. He ran for the restroom as quickly as his unitard would allow him.
A long table had been set up along one wall inside the Vietnamese sandwich shop, with onlookers cheering from every spot left -- standing on chairs, perching on tables. "It's like the blueberry pie-eating contest from Stand By Me," one onlooker remarked. "If most of the people in Stand By Me were covered in tattoos or dressed as zombies."
Hambone, left, managed to stand briefly before having to leave the competition.
Many of the tattooed crowd were cheering for Jason "Shark Week" Cruz, a member of local suspension team AGRO, who stood for most of the competition. His closest competition -- both literally and figuratively -- was right beside him: Chris Millard, a five-time eating contest champion at the Houston Renaissance Festival, in full zombie make-up. The lanky Cruz had studied up before the showdown, though.
"My strategy was to eat the insides out," Cruz said, even though the insides -- slathered with Zombie sauce -- were the hottest part of the sandwich. "I wasn't worried about that," Cruz said. "The sauce was good."
With only 20 seconds left in the competition, Cruz began tearing off chunks of the bread and dipping them into a glass of water before shoving them into his mouth. Millard -- also standing now, like Cruz -- had adopted this tactic, too. The men sneaked glances at each other between manic, last-minute bites before Cafe TH owner Minh Nguyen called out "TIME!" and all seven competitors dropped their fistfuls of meat and bread and sat back exhausted.
Hambone hoisted his near-empty quart of milk into the air. "To the kitchen!" he shouted, and the competitors toasted with equal vigor. Everyone was excited to be finished, but no one had finished their banh mi, once again. The Zombie banh mi simply can't be killed.
"That was a lot harder than I thought," Millard confessed. "The size doesn't look near as massive online as it does in person."
Millard normally wins contests that involve eating large numbers of things in a row -- pumpkin pies and hot wings, for example -- but had never encountered one massive, singular, immovable object such as the Zombie Banh Mi.
"I thought he'd won," Millard said, gesturing at Cruz. But after weighing the remnants of the sandwiches, it was actually Millard who won...by a few ounces. He went home with a $50 gift card to Cafe TH and a case of Santo beer from Saint Arnold.
Cruz went home with a $25 gift card and a full stomach. "I think I did good," he said, before revealing the mouth full of sharp, incisor-like teeth that gave him his nickname. "I've got real messed up teeth, so my friends just started calling me Shark Week.," explained Cruz with a massive grin. "And I'm a little bit good at eating."
At the end of the long table, one competitor had remained quiet throughout the competition, thoughtfully eating each bite with a knife and fork while contestants like Hambone, Millard and Cruz went full tilt. "I knew after 12 minutes that I wasn't going to win," said regular customer Chris Norton. "Why hurt myself?"
"I actually liked the big Zombie banh mi better, though," said Norton, who orders a regular-sized Zombie banh mi every time he comes to Cafe TH. "There was a lot more meat." Norton didn't care in the least that he'd lost the competition.
"Hey, free sandwich!"